Not unlike Rembrandt who created a total of seven prints of Saint Jerome (five of which are represented in our current Rembrandt 400 sale), Dürer must have felt a strong affinity to Saint Jerome and devoted no less than six prints to him: three woodcuts, a drypoint and two of his most important engravings, of which the present is one. Yet it was not only the Saint working in his study, to whom both Rembrandt and Dürer felt drawn as the archetype of the scholar and the artist; they were equally interested in the penitent Saint, alone in the wilderness.
Saint Jerome penitent in the Desert has been dated to 1496 and is possibly the earliest of the large engravings by the artist. It is very close in date and composition to the small, jewel-like painting of the same subject in the National Gallery in London. Whilst in the painted version the Saint has just knelt down in a rather pleasant mountain pasture, Dürer here has placed the Saint in a much starker, one might say more graphic, environment. He kneels in a bleak sandy trough, described by Dürer with long, sweeping lines, between stark and hazardous cliffs. This rocky landscape is not without its ambiguities: symbolic on the one hand for the hostility of the desert and of the world as a whole, the rocks in the background also support a small chapel, and are thus an emblem for the solidity of faith.
We know of several studies of rocky landscapes by Dürer, possibly drawn in a quarry near Nuremberg, which he probably used in preparation of this print, and it is the sharp, crystalline quality of these rocks in contrast to the animated nature, the trees, the lion and almost naked, fragile body of the saint, that make this print so poignant.